The Irish archives are a partial model for information retrieval today – if the politicians ever let it happen

The release of papers about the rank and file – and the women – of the 1916 Easter Rising should prompt greater depth and detail in the writing of history you might have thought had been well turned over already. But you’d be wrong.  The eminent  historian Diarmaid  Ferriter explains the crucial role of the Bureau of Military History, the archive of accounts of veterans recorded mainly in the 1940s and 50s well after the main events. The bureau began document release only a decade ago out of respect for the sensitivities of survivors and families and fears of the contemporary political implications of picking at old sores. The period covered is barely a decade long. The period from the events, through recording the stories and finally publishing them stretches over almost a century.

Will the full history of the Troubles fare any better or even as well? The period of time covered is far longer than from 1913 through to the war of independence and civil war and the politics is far more precarious than the 1950s Republic.  The difference perhaps is that today we live in a different age of multimedia, investigative inquiry and  freedom of information – assuming of course  the local politicians  give their gracious permission post-post-post Haass.  Apart from the timescale the Bureau would  be a good model for our own exercise by Arkiv and others, if they ever get off the ground in anyone’s lifetime.

From Diairmaid  Ferriter in the Irish Times

In 2003, there was much interest in the opening up of the archive of the Bureau of Military History (BMH), which included over 1,700 statements taken from Irish War of Independence veterans in the 1940s and 1950s. Their accounts of the role they played in the war were locked up in Government Buildings in 1958, with no agreement as to when they might be opened, but with a consensus that it would not be for at least another generation.

That was hardly surprising; many of the events and legacies of the revolutionary era were still raw and divisive in the mid-20th century, and there was legitimate concern about allegations and accusations that might be contained in the statements with no right of redress.

“If every Seán and Séamus from Ballythis and Ballythat, who took major or minor or no part at all in the national movement from 1916 to 1921, has free access to the material it may result in local civil warfare in every second town and village in the country.”

The MSPC is an archive that is monumental in its detail and scope, and it is likely to transform research into, and understanding of, Irish republican military endeavour from 1916 to 1923 as well as the political, social and cultural forces underpinning it.

It has involved an awesome effort on the part of a small number of archivists based in the Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, who have had to tackle the processing, cataloguing and digitisation of a collection that amounts to nearly 300,000 files, which will be released in phases over the next few years

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  • son of sam

    Can anyone clarify whether the M S P C will cover those who were on “active service” in Northern Ireland?

  • socaire

    Why would you want to know?

  • Harry Flashman

    “Can anyone clarify whether the M S P C will cover those who were on “active service” in Northern Ireland?”

    I would imagine they would, the IRA were (are) a 32-county organisation and they would hardly have expected the Stormont government to pay IRA veterans’ pensions. Post 1922 Michael Collins as leader of the Free State officially sent troops north so they would be due pensions.

    I wonder how many IRA men, and even more so soldiers of the Free State, would have been eligible for pensions from both British and Irish governments due to their service in both countries’ armies?

    I found the website to be a bit difficult to negotiate, I entered details of relatives who I know to have been in the IRA and Cumann Na mBan (and no this isn’t a case of claiming to have fought in 1916 alongside Pearse, their names appear in books written about that time) in Donegal and couldn’t locate any reference to them or found references to documents that didn’t appear to have relevance to them.

    Anyone else have any luck and any suggestion as to where the best place to locate what I’m looking for?

  • Times have changed in Ballycastle and Moyarget since this event reported by Liam McMullan took place:

    Louis J. Walshe who was then a solicitor in Ballycastle and a native of Maghera, County Derry, took a leading part in the Sinn Féin movement and in the fight against Conscription. I remember he organised an anti-Conscription meeting for Ballycastle and arranged for a large contingent of Orangemen from a place called Moyarget to take part. The Master of Moyarget Orange Lodge was Chairman of the meeting in Ballycastle. The Orange band at Moyarget travelled to the meeting by wagonette and when they came to the outskirts of Ballycastle they dismounted and with their instruments joined up with the Sinn Féin Pipe Band and both bands paraded through all the principal thoroughfares of the town before the meeting commenced.

  • socaire

    I can understan SF being anti-conscription but why were the OO against it? Harry, what were the circumstances of – what was essentially pro Treaty IRA – being sent North? Any links?

  • socaire, here’s a little bit more from Liam re.Ballycastle district:

    During the Local Government Elections and subsequently a large number of Unionists voted Republican. The first change which occurred in this attitude of the Orangemen was in the General Election in 1918. The Sinn Féin leaders were foolish enough to be influenced by the late Cardinal Logue to enter into an agreement with the Irish Parliamentary Party, and in certain northern constituencies with a Nationalist majority there was no election held except to put up Nationalists candidates to oppose the Unionists. The impact of this arrangement on the Orangemind was to confirm them in their belief that Sinn Féin was on a par with the Old Parliamentary Party and that any measure of Home Rule for Ireland meant Rome Rule. This situation did an amount of harm and ruined all chance of a future co-operation with Sinn Féin by National minded Unionists.

    His term ‘National minded Unionists’ is confusing. Perhaps he meant Protestants who were in favour of Home Rule or Irish unity. Some years ago I noted that in parts of north-east Ulster rural Orangemen supported Tenant Right whereas their town counterparts didn’t. Some folks around Moyarget in 1918/9 were directed to hand-in their UVF rifles and they were to be transported to Ballymoney during the Lammas Fair.

  • socaire, on the treaty issue in 1922 Liam has this to say:

    A large number of our Division and Brigade Officers had been influenced to adopt a pro-Treaty viewpoint on the understanding that they would be supplied by General Headquarters with ammunitions and war material and would be helped to carry on the fight within the Divisional area. This attitude of some of our officers caused discussions and differences of opinion amongst vast numbers of other officers and men. ..

    We junior officers had very little contact with Dublin, in fact we had no contact with Dublin, and we were expecting help from the pro-Treaty party which didn’t later materialise.

  • socaire

    Nevin, v. interesting but I thought that Collins’ official view was that any interference in the 6 cos would endanger the nats in Belfast/

  • Harry Flashman

    It occurred in May 1922 just as the Civil War was kicking off and both sides were united in their desire to do something for the Nationalists of Northern Ireland who were suffering from sectarian attacks.

    Collins saw it as helping to kill two birds with one stone, he could unify the IRA in a cause that both sides could support at the same time as providing aid to the Nationalists of the North.

    The operation was clandestine and Collins was worried that weapons handed over to the Free State army by the British might be captured so he and the anti-Treaty forces worked together to swap rifles so that only those obtained by the IRA themselves would be used. Munster units of the anti-Treaty IRA were actually provided with British-supplied rifles so that their weapons could be used by the IRA going north.
    Ammunition and rifles were also passed to and fro between the anti-Treaty IRA in the Four Courts and the Free State forces in Beggars Bush barracks.

    So concerned were the British by these moves that Churchill discussed fears of a southern invasion of Northern Ireland in June 1922. The upshot was the famous shelling of Pettigo (yes it’s hard to believe that a wee, up-Main-Street-down-the-same-street village in County Donegal was actually shelled by British artillery) where the British fired on Free State army forces.

    I am not clear what effect all this had on the situation, the campaign petered out in any even as the Civil War got underway and it certainly hardened the Unionist government in Belfast in their determination to resist any detente from the South. Unionists often pointed to senior Fianna Fail minister Frank Aiken as being a leader of the Armagh IRA who killed protestants particularly a massacre of border protestants in June 1922 although it would appear that these actions were not part of Collins’ official moves.

    I’ve been reading up a bit about the whole 1922-23 period recently and find it fascinating as it is a part of the Troubles of that time that receives very little attention but which was of fundamental importance in shaping the two states in Ireland that eventually emerged from the conflict.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    son of sam (profile) 17 January 2014 at 11:51 pm
    Can anyone clarify whether the M S P C will cover those who were on “active service” in Northern Ireland?

    I know that the records released on Thursday on lists members in the North in 1921 and 1922, and for example a list of operations carried out by the Belfast Brigades

  • Harry Flashman

    “lists members in the North in 1921 and 1922, and for example a list of operations carried out by the Belfast Brigades”

    Can you provide a specific link to that so I can see how I should go about researching my own ancestors?

  • Droch_Bhuachaill
  • Harry Flashman

    Thanks, that appears to be what I’m looking for but there’s a shed load of documentation to get through especially as I am not entirely clear what part of 1st Northern Division my ancestors served in.

    I note that the documents relate to personnel as of June 1922, a significant date, as my relatives were by that stage well and truly in the Irregulars camp would they have been included? I presume so as I see the documents were compiled in 1935 by which time FF were in government.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    A shed load is right, and the search tools aren’t up to much. browsing is the only way…

  • Harry Flashman

    “the search tools aren’t up to much”

    Ain’t that the truth. I entered the names of my grandmother and her two brothers who are on record as having fought for the IRA in Donegal alongside Peader O’Donnell and the two brothers were subsequently interned by the Free State for years in the Curragh and got absolutely no joy from the search function.

    I thought maybe as they were on the wrong side they simply were passed over but then I had a thought, I picked a name clearly typed on one of the PDF files, a Donegal IRA man with the distinctive name of Godfrey O’Donnell and entered that into the search engine. No results!

    Quite what purpose the search function fulfills is beyond me, I will simply have to wade through some sixteen sets of PDF documents some of 60 pages or more per set and extremely slow at downloading and see if I can find anything.

    Might wait till the weekend or some night I can’t sleep.